Friday 17 November 2017

End to long-running dispute between teachers and minister over Junior Cert reform in sight

Jan O'Sullivan
Jan O'Sullivan
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

An end is in sight to the long-running dispute over reform of the Junior Cert.

A plan to resolve the row has been agreed between Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan and the leadership of the two second-level unions, the Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI).

It will pave the way for the restoration of peace in second-level schools and the uninterrupted roll-out of the junior cycle changes, on a phased basis,  from September.

The breakthrough came following two top-level meetings with union leaders in the past week – one attended by the minister yesterday and another, involving her senior officials,  last Friday.

A document that involves compromise on both sides will be presented to meetings of the executive bodies of the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland  (ASTI) and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI)  on Friday.

Full details of the deal, in a document called  Junior Cycle Reform: Joint Statement on Principles  and Implementation,  are not being officially released until after the executive meetings on  Friday.

However, it does include a commitment  to  classroom-based assessment in English of second-year  junior cycle students going  ahead as planned next year, representing the first big step on the road to reform.

A key plank of  union opposition to the reform package has been the idea that teachers take some responsibility for  assessing  their own students as part of a reformed Junior Cert.

Ahead of the executive meetings, the sides were unwilling to discuss exactly how they bridged the gap on this critical issue.

While the proposals may meet resistance from some members of the union executives,  the support of ASTI  president Philip Irwin and TUI president Gerry Quinn - who attended the ground-breaking  talks in the Department of Education -  for the proposals will be a key influence.

Crucially, there is agreement that the document will form the basis for a ballot by the teacher unions, as soon as is practicable after schools reopen in September.

This would be the first ballot by teachers on the issue since last year -  with union leaders taking decisions not to put  two separate sets of proposals  that were presented  the last six months out to a vote.

After the unions' decision not to ballot members for a second time Ms O’Sullivan insisted that she was pressing ahead with changes from September and was adamant that certain reforms, such as the introduction of class-based assessment in English  – the first of the subjects to undergo revision -  would not be delayed  any longer.

The  junior cycle reforms are intended to end reliance on a single set of exams after three years of second-level education - which is blamed for encouraging rote learning -  with  a switch to system where students are supported in developing a  broader range of skills than memorising text.

Discussions leading to the proposed resolution  followed comments made by  the minister at recent the annual conference of the Joint Managerial Body (JMB).

Ms O’Sullivan  outlined five key principles which,  she said,  must underpin any reform of the Junior Cycle:

*the need to recognise a wide range of learning

*a requirement to considerably reduce the focus on one terminal exam as a means of assessing our students

*necessity to give prominence and importance to classroom based assessment

*greater professional collaboration between teachers to be a feature of our schools

*both parents and students to get a broader picture of each student's learning throughout the whole of junior cycle.

The unions wrote to the minister afterwards and , according to a spokesperson “ sought engagement on how they might be implemented in a mutually acceptable and appropriately resourced way”.

A statement issued today said: “A proposal to resolve the dispute over Junior Cycle reform has been agreed between the Department and the leadership of the second-level teaching unions.

"The leadership of the ASTI and the TUI, along with Minister O'Sullivan, have committed their support and strong endorsement to these clearly stated proposals.

According to the statement, the agreed document going to union executives tomorrow,  “outlines a foundation for reform of the junior cycle, within the context of those principles.

"The document will be published with the express intention that it will form the basis for a ballot of trade union members, to take place as early as practicable in Autumn 2015.

While the union executives are discussing the matter, the minister will brief the other education partners on developments.

"Both sides have agreed that no further comment will be made in advance of the publication of the document on Friday evening," the statement concluded.

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